Thursday, November 8, 2012


Fans of the work by Robert Zemeckis might find themselves at quite the surprise by his latest, Flight, a sobering grown up drama, one that's held together not by the mastery of visual prowess, but the rawness of human emotion.  The first shot of the film is in fact, a woman's breast, a nearly startling and frank opening from the auteur who made his career on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Forrest Gump and the Back to the Future films.  This is his first live action film since 2000's Cast Away after an extensive and expensive journey into the world of stop motion animation, however there's more to the contents of Flight's R-rating that marks it as the most mature piece of filmmaking by Zemeckis-- it's his stripped down and minimalist piece of work.  Rid of commercial tie-ins or high concepts, he and screenwriter John Gatins bring an illuminating character study that showcases a rawness, an empathy, and humanistic compassion without sentiment or judgement.  It's a near triumph in it of itself that a major motion picture studio would back such a decidedly mature piece of work about grown ups aimed at grown ups.  That the film, under the sturdy sheen that someone like Zemeckis can so immaculately execute brings out the best in Gatins' more independently-minded edginess and provides the best use of star Denzel Washington in years.

Capt. Whip Whitaker (Washington) is a fun loving good ole boy.  An ace pilot with a crisp calmness and charisma that might melt walls.  In design, at least on the onset, he almost reads like a parody, or an old fashioned archetype for a former matinee idol.  We meet him after a long night of partying and sex a la carte; he's like the old school vision of what the Pan-Am pilots might have been like-- perhaps with the exception of the line of coke that he needs to pull himself together.  Whip's a drunkard, but he's so effortlessly cool.  Flight relies and surely could have coasted on Washington's charm alone-- he sells Whip so in control and steady, that even as we see him pilfer mini vodka bottles during his flight, we still feel safe and secure. 

Unfortunately, something really bad happens-- his plane starts to lose it, and in one of the great plane crash scenes in certainly recent, but perhaps, all time cinematic history.  Zemeckis, of course, can always be relied upon for grandeur, but there's a gracefulness to his visual kineticism, even a subtlety.  It's expressed in the freaked out reactionary shot by co-pilot Ken (Brian Geraghty), the fragility of the flight attendants, both experienced and less so, and the pure command of the Whip, high but self-composed.  There's layers, but an underlying sense of adrenaline.  Whip's impressive efforts saves lives, as the airplanes mechanics are an early blame.  Injured, and mourning the six lives he couldn't save on flight, Whip is still branded a hero.  Flight's intuition about the behavior of those, unknowingly or not, battling addiction feels organic from the start, as Whip is awakened that alcohol must go, even while be persuaded, while still in the hospital no less, by his dealer, played with a Big Lebowski-loudness by John Goodman.  While also in the hospital, Whip forms an acquaintance with a young woman with addiction problems of her own, Nicole, played by Kelly Reilly.

What drives the plot of Flight is the incoming investigation of the cause of the plane crash, one that haunts Whip as his blood alcohol level may become a factor.  Enter in attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), one who can finesse the words in the much the same fashion Whip can manipulate him.  He's able to throw away potentially incriminating information on a mere technicality.  Flight charts the investigation while sidelining the developing relationship between Whip and Nicole, however all of the power of the film is sparked and made alive by the palpable portrait Washington provides.  In a role that requires both Washington the movie star and Washington, the energized, compassionate thespian inside, he wonderfully imbues the darker moments with a remarkably soft touch, while instilling that smooth cool he has done so successfully, for the most part, recently, in film far inferior. 

Naturally, there's moments of Flight that arise the unsightly blemishes of cliche, but the film never veers too far away when Washington is front and center.  It's more when Flight veers of course-- particularly in early segments that awkwardly parallel Nicole's downfall with Whips or when Goodman shows up in full grown movie land ham mode that take away the more profound and truthful moments of one mans self reflection.  Nicole, in particular, reads like a loosely put together character, designed as ego-buffer for Whip, until she isn't.  Rielly does a nice job of trying to keep her heroin-addicted white trash gal above caricature, but the film loses interest in her before the audience is capable of gauging her much.  Goodman, on the other, a remarkable performer (in the midst of a hell of a year with Argo and Trouble With the Curve) is just a odd fit for a film that otherwise affirms itself in the real world.

The most settling conclusion to be made about Flight is the lack of easily put together answers, and the way the film for the most hangs in the uncertain messiness of very real problems.  Perhaps the finale might read a bit too pat, but Washington keeps everything so firmly put together that end-of-day redemption is presented more a day by day discovery than mythical, and yes, the film has a firmly minted gloss it may not have had otherwise-- perhaps because Hollywood really never makes dramas anymore-- but there's firmly constructed bridge between art and commerce in Flight that demonstrates something big studios haven't made accessible in years.  That alone keeps Flight up in the air.  B+

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...